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The Secret Gospel of Mark Unveiled: A Review

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  • Loren Rosson
    The Secret Gospel of Mark Unveiled: Imagined Rituals of Sex, Death, and Madness in a Biblical Forgery, by Peter Jeffery. Yale University Press. ISBN-10:
    Message 1 of 1 , Nov 17 11:59 AM
      The Secret Gospel of Mark Unveiled: Imagined Rituals
      of Sex, Death, and Madness in a Biblical Forgery, by
      Peter Jeffery. Yale University Press. ISBN-10:
      0-300-11760-4; ISBN-13: 978-0-300-11760-8.

      Like Stephen Carlson a year ago, Peter Jeffery is able
      to show how obvious it is that Morton Smith fabricated
      Clement's letter to Theodore. One would think that
      Carlson exhausted all of Smith's anachronisms (the
      "bald swindler" M. Madiotes, Morton Salt, and modern
      gays in the 1950s being arrested in public
      Gethsemanes), but Jeffery has spotted more:

      * The three features of Secret Mark’s initiation rite
      -- resurrection symbolism, a period of teaching
      followed by a night vigil, and the wearing of a white
      cloth -- point to the 1950s Anglican liturgical
      renewal movement. In addition, Clement and the
      Alexandrian church had a theology of baptism that was
      based not on the easter event of Jesus' resurrection,
      but on the epiphany event of Jesus' baptism by John.
      Secret Mark should thus have epiphany motifs (i.e.
      creation, the heavens opening with light, the descent
      of the Holy Spirit and fire, the seal of priestly and
      messianic anointings) rather than easter motifs (i.e.
      Pauline associations between baptism and
      resurrection). (pp 60-70)

      * The homoeroticism in Secret Mark makes no sense in
      an ancient context. Adult males were supposed to
      pursue young boys/men, who in turn were supposed to
      acquiesce only after "playing hard to get" and only if
      the boy perceived that the sex would have intiatory
      value (i.e. that the man would go beyond sex and
      educate him in proper mores). But in Secret Mark,
      Jesus does not pursue the young man: just the opposite
      if anything, and this would have been shamefully
      unacceptable. Secret Mark was evidently written by a
      modern person who assumed that ancient homosexuality
      would have followed Plato's model of an older teacher
      with a young disciple, but who didn't quite understand
      how the roles played out -- and such misunderstandings
      were common in academic circles before the work of
      K.J. Dover in the late 70s. (This would seem to
      improve on Carlson, who argued that the homoeroticism
      in Secret Mark makes no sense since Jesus and the
      young man are depicted as social peers. But a "young
      man", however rich, suggests they're not quite peers.)
      (pp 185-192)

      * Clement's letter is riddled with allusions to Oscar
      Wilde's 19th-century play, "Salome", and Wilde was a
      homosexual martyr to boot. In the play Salome does the
      "dance of the seven veils", which is punned by Smith's
      Clement, who writes about "the truth hidden by seven
      veils". She is punned, in turn, by Smith's Salome,
      whom Jesus rejects along with the rest of the female
      race. (pp 226-231)

      On top of this, Jeffery catches Smith in some pretty
      amusing lies. A notable one: whereupon discovering
      Clement's letter, Smith says he went to Vespers
      instead of staying to investigate his discovery,
      apparently forgetting what he said two pages earlier
      (in "The Secret Gospel", p 10) -- that he had stopped
      attending religious services because he no longer
      "responded" to them. (pp 9-11)

      Jeffery goes after Morton Smith pretty hard, unlike
      Carlson who seemed (at least in part) to respect or
      admire a man who had the skills to bamboozle so many
      academics. Jeffery expresses sorrow and contempt:
      Smith "became what he opposed: a hypocritical Clement
      who condoned lying for the sake of a fundamentalist
      sexology" (pp 247-248); "a man in great personal
      pain", who didn't even understand himself despite
      pretensions to a superior gnosticism (p 243); a bitter
      academic, whose hoax stands as "the most grandiose and
      reticulated 'Fuck You' ever perpetuated in the long
      and vituperative history of scholarship" (p 242). He’s
      right about that last one, but whether Smith wrote his
      hoax more out of experimental amusement or angry
      revenge remains unclear.

      The names Stephen Carlson and Peter Jeffery will soon
      become closely associated, and that's a credit to them
      both. But who has the stronger case? Carlson has the
      edge with his forensic handwriting analysis. The
      Morton Salt exhibit (Carlson) and Anglican liturgical
      analysis (Jeffery) each point to Morton Smith in
      particular. Both address the homosexuality issue --
      which also puts Smith directly on the spot -- though
      Jeffery more satisfyingly. Carlson insists on the
      pernicious nature of fakes, while Jeffery seems more
      interested in the perniciousness of Morton Smith
      himself. They complement each other perfectly, and
      stand as definitive twin debunkings of the Secret Mark

      P.S. This book will be of interest to those who study
      ancient rituals, whether or not they care about Secret
      Mark. In discussing the baptismal imagery in Secret
      Mark, Jeffery offers an enlightening critique of
      academic treatments of liturgical traditions,
      insisting that instead of giving undue priority to
      texts, scholars need to give full attention to three
      dimensions of worship -- the textual, the
      practical/actional, and the theoretical/critical. An

      "We can learn a lot about a church by studying its
      hymnal (the textual dimension). But we can learn even
      more by attending its worship and observing that these
      people rarely use their hymnal -- they rely instead on
      photocopied pamphlets that are distributed each week
      and then discarded (the practical dimension). It is
      only when we have identified and interviewed the
      decision-makers, and gotten them to explain the
      critique of their hymnal that the photocopies embody
      (the critical dimension), that we will begin to
      understand who this community is before its god." (pp 57-58)

      Loren Rosson III
      Nashua NH

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